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From the set of CHANDANI - THE DAUGHTER OF THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER (photo courtesy of Tradewind Pictures)

Production Report featured in
German Films Quarterly 03/2008

In CHANDANI - THE DAUGHTER OF THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER, writer-director Arne Birkenstock tells the story of 16-year-old Chandani from Sri Lanka. The young woman is very close to an injured young elephant that has just been delivered to the elephant orphanage at Pinnawela National Park. If she can succeed in bringing the animal back on its feet, mentally as well as physically, then her father Sunamabanda, the chief mahout in the orphanage and known as the Elephant Whisperer throughout the country, will train her to be the first female mahout in Sri Lanka. If she fails and the animal dies, then her dream will be buried along with it and her family’s long tradition of being mahouts will also come to an end.

Producer Thomas Springer “came up with the idea when a baby elephant was born about two and a half years ago at the Cologne zoo. The crowds were enormous and when I saw how elephants, especially baby ones, attract people of all ages I realized this was a story with huge potential.”

After speaking with Birkenstock, who had also taken his children, they both searched for expert advice and came across Dr. Schwammer, at the Vienna zoo. It was this latter, himself active in many elephant projects in Sri Lanka, who put them onto Sunamabanda. Birkenstock then joined Schwammer on his next trip out.

Sunamabanda was, understandably, “cautious at first,” Springer continues. “But Arne is very involved and won him over.” In one of those art-reflecting-life-reflecting-art stories, Sunamabanda has no sons! Fortunately his daughter “is great. She’s very natural in front of the camera. She looks very good and is open.”

It would be too easy and glib to dismiss Chandani as THE HORSE WHISPERER but with elephants. As Springer says, “Sunamabanda is someone who knows more about elephants than can be summed up in rational words. There is a very deep connection. The story is totally different, too. This is about whether a daughter will follow in her father’s footsteps.”

Also, since this is a semi-fictional documentary, whilst the film will have a happy end, the tension is real because Chandani herself has yet to pass the test and see the orphaned elephant accepted by the herd. The truth is that many do not survive due to being rejected. “We’re filming until almost the end of the year,” Springer says, “and hope it works. The end is open in real life, not so in the film.”

To this end, Springer and Arne have less a script and “more of a narrative line from the research, but it’s only a direction, not one-to-one scenes to act out.”

Springer is proud “we’ve learned a lot about elephants! But what we find so exciting is that this is a story which shows the emotions between man and animal. It goes into the mystical and shows a culture that is, for us, exotic. In Sri Lanka there are now few working elephants due to logging restrictions. The profession of the mahout is dying out. Sunamabanda is well-known and respected. He’s an important figure, and an opposite pole to Dr. Schwammer, who comes from a Western, veterinary-medical standpoint.”

Arne Birkenstock was born in 1967 and studied Economics, Politics and History in Cologne, Buenos Aires and Córdoba. Since 1994 he’s worked as a freelance author and filmmaker, contributing documentaries and reports to WDR, ARD, ZDF and ARTE. He is active educationally at, among others, the Film & Television Academy (HFF) “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam-Babelsberg and the Academy of Media Arts Cologne (KHM). His first cinema documentary, 12 TANGOS - ADIOS BUENOS AIRES ran for over 62 weeks in many theaters, reaped critical and audience praise and, with just seven copies, resulted in 40,000 admissions.

It also screened at The Era New Horizons International Film Festival in Warsaw, the Jecheon International Music & Film Festival Seoul, the Monterrey International Film Festival, the Cinemania Festival in Sofia, the International Film Festival in Calcutta, the 7th Festival of Latin American Film and in the International Competition section of the Yamagata International Documentary Festival.

Based on Birkenstock’s track record so far, CHANDANI - THE DAUGHTER OF THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER looks set to give us something to shout about.

Genre Environment/Ecology
Category Docu-Fiction
Year of Production 2008
Director Arne Birkenstock
Screenplay Arne Birkenstock
Cinematography Marcus Winterbauer
Cast K.G. Chandani Renaka Ratnayake, K.G. Sunamabanda
Producers Thomas Springer, Helmut G. Weber, Arne Birkenstock
Production Companies Tradewind Pictures/Cologne, Fruitmarket Arts & Media/Cologne, in co-production with SWR, WDR, Dr. Peter Bach/Cologne
Shooting Dates Sri Lanka, June - September 2008
Sound Technology Dolby Digital
Festivals Chicago International Children's Film Festival 2010, Documentary Edge Film Festival Auckland & Wellington 2011, Sprockets Toronto 2011, ViewFinders Halifax 2011
Awards 1st Prize Children's Jury (Documentary) Chicago 2010, German Film Prize 2011 (Best Children's Film)
With backing from German Federal Film Board / FFA Filmförderungsanstalt, German Federal Film Fund / DFFF Deutscher Filmförderfonds, Film- und Medienstiftung NRW, BKM
German Distributor Alpha Medienkontor/Weimar

Tradewind Pictures
Hohenzollernring 16-18
50672 Cologne/Germany
phone +49-2 21-9 12 56 10
fax +49-2 21-9 12 56 12